Bring the Environment Along

The Problem

Have you ever worked hard to do more or less of a certain behavior to then discover that no one really noticed?

When you try to quit smoking, what are you told to do? Instead of going outside on breaks and smoking with your friends, you are encouraged to engage in alternative activities that reinforce health. When you are tending a garden, what do you do to ensure that seeds have the best environment to grow? You pull weeds, spread fertilizer, and carefully nurture a positive outcome.

Often, leaders embrace behaviors that get them closer to a desired self. Yet, they forget to nurture the environment around them, and then are shocked when their hard work is ignored or even denied.

When you work for awhile within an organization, you become labeled. You might as well have yellow post-it notes all over your face and body: bossy, loud-mouth, micro-manager, great sense of humor, glass half-empty kind of person, will help you in a pinch.  This is your environment. For other people to change their already slotted mindset about you, you need to take a few concrete steps. You have to “force” the mental shift because people don’t like to rethink and re-slot. That takes energy and the acknowledgement of new incoming data.

For example, let’s say you are practicing more inclusive behaviors and are asking more questions, inviting others before giving your ideas, and positively looking for win-win solutions. You work with a coach and proactively choose these alternative behaviors over your old patterns. Over a two-week period, you are in ten meetings. In nine of those meetings, you sustain an inclusive approach. In the tenth meeting, someone criticizes you and you fall back into your old bombastic ways. Now let’s say your coach asks for feedback from one of your co-workers, Lynnette, and she says, “Jamal is basically the same. Just yesterday I was in a meeting with him and he started screaming over everyone.”

Rather than seeing you in a new way, it is easier for Lynnette—and the rest of the folks in your environment–to SEEK information that will verify her proven mindset and block out contrary evidence.

What will it take for the environment to see you through a different lens?

A Solution

What I’m about to share is “a” solution, not necessarily “the” solution. I say this because behavior change and creating a healthy environment depends on many factors such as resources, authenticity, ego, patience, culture, hidden agendas, persistence, honest feedback, social norms, and years of conditioning. Yet, there is one main action that will ensure a more positive outcome: bring your environment along.

To illustrate this phenomenon, try this little exercise with me right now. Stop reading, look around the room for 30 seconds, and count as many red items you can see in the room. How many red things did you find? 5, 8, 32? You brain found red because you told it to find red. Now, answer this question. How many blue items did you find? Your most likely answer would be, “I don’t know. Maybe a couple. I wasn’t looking for blue.” You can MINDFULLY focus your brain to notice some things over others. This is what you want to do to “bring your environment along.”

So here is a scenario. Through guided reflection, you paint a picture of the kind of leader you want to be. You study and begin to practice behaviors that become more natural as you move closer to your future self. You realize this won’t happen overnight. To add and choose behaviors that you normally don’t use takes diligence as you reprogram the synapses in your brain. As you harden the new habit, you get better and better going down the path of “asking more questions” instead of your older path of “demanding others accept my ideas.”

Now it is time to nurture your environment. First, leave your ego at the door. Second, on an index card, jot down the NEW BEHAVIORS you want others to “look for.” Third, approach 3 – 6 people you want to take on your coaching journey. Share with each person that you are working on your leadership development and that you need their help. Ask them to observe you for a month and to watch out for you “doing these alternative behaviors” and jot down the situation, what you said/did, and the result. Then share that you will be coming back to get their feedback.

Given everything written in this article, you can begin to realize why this works so well. There are four reasons why. First, you are asking for their help—you are asking them to become a supportive partner. This tickles their brains and puts them in a frame of wanting to see you succeed. Second, it is using a tangible tool that keeps everyone honest and focused. The stage has been set with clearly defined roles. Third, it requires observers to look for the alternative behavior and mindfully move away from validating their already established mindset. You have told their brains to look for the “red.” Fourth, it puts black and white data in front of their eyes. Even if one of your observers consciously or unconsciously wants you to fail, it will be hard to deny the very behavior his/her brain is seeking. They have no choice but to say, “I was with you in ten meetings. In nine meetings you asked more questions, acknowledged the opinions of others, and let others speak before offering your ideas. You messed up in that one meeting last week, but I must admit, you are doing well.”

And all of the above is even more important now during our evolution to a hybrid workplace. Reach out. Make it concrete. Support one another. Succeed. Be healthy and create a healthy culture beyond four walls. 

Ginny Bianco-Mathis is a Professor at Marymount University (School of Business, Innovation, Leadership, and Technology). She consults through her own firm, Strategic Performance Group, and as a senior consultant with Oyster OD. Listen to Ginny’s podcast at team-anywhere.com.